BWW Feature: Protests, Parades, And Pride, Oh My!
When I began my job at Broadway World I held tight to the principle that a journalist must not be a part of the story, and though there have been times when I have not adhered adamantly to that rule, it has been a focus in my writing here. I was recently watching the TV program The Morning Show and heard a character, a television reporter, say that she believed that audiences these days look for some transparency in the journalists who bring them the news. Today, on the occasion of Pride, there are words to say that could not be said without transparency; so, in the name of transparency, in the celebration of Pride, today I write from a place of personal expression.
For 27 years I have lived in New York City. That is over two decades of Gay Pride celebrations, most of which were parties, parades, and beautiful members of the LGBTQ+ community out being authentically who they were, a right that many other people take for granted. It's an important thing to be proud of who you are, and whether a person is a certain race, religion, sexuality, age, gender, or anything else is destined to inform their personal level of pride regarding who they are.
I was not always proud. I was raised in an era when the world was taught that homosexuality is wrong, so I found myself an 18-year-old gay male attending college in Texas in the early 1980s, with no role models, a good deal of self-loathing, and a revolving door in my closet. Ok, it didn't revolve THAT much because I was terribly shy, but the hinges worked well enough for me to find the man who would become my first and only boyfriend ever. Never very good with a secret, I outed both of us to the University Drama Department and we became (I would be told some twenty years later) the first out, committed gay couple for most of our classmates. So there was always a certain degree of pride that Pat and I took in ourselves and in our relationship, a pride that we felt long before we had learned that there was such a thing as Gay Pride, a Pride Parade, or the Stonewall Riots that started it all. These were the days that pre-dated the internet and there was no Gay Studies curriculum at our institution of higher education. What we learned had to come from a kernel of truth dropped in our path by an older gay male, and what we continued to discover would either come from conversation or by making the effort of acquiring a book and reading about the history of our people. That is exactly what we did, and in doing so we became autodidacts on the subject of gay rights and the gay influence on literature and the entertainment arts, thanks, in no small measure, to a man named Vito Russo. Our household became one where the older gay men answered all the questions asked of them and informed younger people in all demographics about the history of our tribe and of the relationship between gay people and show business - it has been a role that Pat and I have always assumed with pride.
Pride comes in many different forms.
"What are you boys doing this weekend?"
That was my mother, speaking during one of our many phone conversations during the week. The year was 1994, Pat and I were living in New York City and Mom and Dad were over in Secaucus.
"Nothing. Staying home," I replied
"Aren't you going to the parade?" she wanted to know.
"There's a big parade for Gay Pride."
I was thirty and had never come out to my parents. I had been living with the same man for nearly a decade and had been obsessed with the Holy Trinity, Judy Barbra Liza, since I was ten years old, so I took the coward's way out and simply assumed that everyone, including my kinfolk, knew precisely who I was, which is not the same as actually coming out.
"So you know that I'm a homosexual?"
And that was the day that I came out to my mother.
In 1990 I went to my first cabaret show. I was living in Dallas and a lady named Julie Wilson was coming to The West End Cabaret in downtown Dallas. Artie Olaisen, Robert McGarity, and Steve Lovett insisted that I go see her, and I have been in their debt ever since. A short time later I went back to the same club and saw Jim Bailey perform as Judy Garland. I was entirely caught up in the magic of witnessing these artists supreme at the top of their game; one might say I never got over it. Those two experiences at The West End Cabaret set the tone for the rest of my life: I was now a fan of the art of cabaret, of nightclub performers, and of concerts. Never, though, did I imagine that I would see what I have seen on nightclub stages in the last year.
Shani Hadjian did a show at The Laurie Beechman Theatre last fall titled FEAR.LESS, and during that performance she shared with her audience stories of the adversities that she has overcome: bullying in her youth for being tall, bullying in her adulthood for her eating habits, bullying for her heritage, her mode of dress, and her personality. During this show, Ms. Hadjian wore brightly colored clothing and high heels to claim her place in the light, and she invited her wife to share the stage with her for a duet.
Sean Patrick Murtagh won a MAC Award for his debut show, MARIO! During the course of the evening, Murtagh did not shy away from who he is, speaking openly about his sexuality, even going as far as to joke about the type of men he likes. The moment was so powerful that this writer mentioned it in an article. It is powerful because, in the days when I first started seeing club acts, there were no same-sex spouses invited to the stage with a full introduction telling the audience who they were, there were no mentions of GRINDR and twinks. Thanks to the activism that has led the way, artists are allowed to, fully, embrace their authenticity in their artistic expression. Since being in quarantine, Mr. Murtagh has hosted a series of live streaming shows from his home, dressed in turbans, shawls, high heels, and his underpants. No concern crosses his mind that being thus exposed online will damage his castability because artists now live in the light, not defiantly, but proudly showcasing that which makes them most uniquely themselves.
Shakina Nayfack crowdfunded her gender confirmation surgery and completed her journey into authenticity online, sharing with her fans, friends, and family every step of the process. This artistic tsunami turned that experience into a one-woman play titled MANIFEST PUSSY that has played sold-out performances at Joe's Pub, one of the most inclusive clubs in the business, proudly providing wing space for artists like Migguel Anggelo and Kevin Smith Kirkwood to stretch their artistic muscles and grow.
Famous performers like Juan Pablo Di Pace, Billy Gilman, and Ty Herndon have gone through the difficult process of coming out publicly and venues like The Green Room 42, Birdland, 54 Below and Joe's Pub have become artistic homes where they can present personal, intimate shows that act as frank, accessible conversations with their fans.
Singer-songwriter Helen Park stood on the stage of 54 Below during an evening showcasing her work and flirted with her audience about being sexually fluid, a comment that drew much vocal praise and excitement from the crowds. On the very same stage that very same month, in a show titled LOVE IS LOVE IS LOVE, Gay, Bi, Trans, Non-binary artists from the LGBTQ community had their headshots broadcast on the monitors, announcing their pronouns while they, in all their beauty and fully realized glory, sang the music that best related to the tales they were there to tell.
Audience members remained unfazed by the presence of a tween at the drag comedy show LEOLA, where a septuagenarian redneck lesbian created by comic Will Nolan discussed everything from her Ladyland to anal beads, and the reason the crowd wasn't bothered by the little boy's presence in the clubs was that he is Nolan's son and never misses a chance to see his Dad perform.
In interviews with Broadway World Cabaret Jeff Harnar has remarked that living in a time when he can be openly gay on stage has made a significant difference in the work he produces, and singing actor Christopher Brasfield said: "I just want to be as black and gay as I can and make people think, cry, laugh and smile while doing it.
Audiences turned out in droves to see the anniversary concert of YANK!, a play about a gay romance during World War 2, and so many people wanted to see Jack Bartholet's tribute to himself and his rampant homosexuality, A LADY WITH A SONG, that he had to add performances over and over again for a year.
One of the greatest shows to play a small venue room this season was THE GORGEOUS NOTHINGS: IN CONCERT. The Life Jacket Theatre Company presented an evening of songs representing the hidden New York gay lifestyle of the 1920s and 1930s. The presentation, based on an actual show created by imprisoned gays of that era) featured a cast of LGBTQ+ performers led by Joe Kinosian at the piano and was an evening so well received that Joe's Pub Online recently aired the production on their Youtube channel, leaving it up for several days, for the public to enjoy.
Gay dads Ray Lee, Claybourne Elder, and Jack Noseworthy shared stories and songs about their families, while Jen Fellman and Samantha Sidley chatted with audiences about the women in their lives. Non-binary and fluid performers like comic James Tisson and drag pianist Lyra Vega discussed their lives and work with POETRY/CABARET audiences, and performers like Nathan Lee Graham, Aaron Blake, and Michael Griffiths brought every ounce of their flamboyant fabulosity to every single stage upon which they stepped.
Once a week, from the stage of the Birdland Theater, Susie Mosher improvised songs about life, her life, and anything that crossed her mind, and quite often those impromptu numbers included the unforgettable Mosher scream-singing "I'M GAAAAAAAY!" and then sharing the intimate details of a remarkable life, a life for which she has much pride and no censor.
HELL ON EARTH, a play about teenagers and starring teenagers, played the stage of 54 Below and featured LGBTQ+ characters being played, undoubtedly, by some young people who are already out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community, young people who will be the club and cabaret artists of the future.
Most of what has been written about in this article would not have played the small venues of America in the 1980s and probably the 1990s. Now, not only do these performers and productions fill the cabaret rooms and clubs, those venues welcome them, offering a home where they can workshop new pieces, spread their artistic wings to grow, and create lives and art for which they feel pride and satisfaction. Much has changed in the world of intimate venue performing, and thank goodness. Because of the crusades of the activists in today's world, these magnificent and marvelous performers and artists are not only given permission to be their most authentic selves, they give themselves the permission, and that has opened a floodgate to the stories they are able to tell - stories their patrons long for, fly to, and remember long after the music has stopped playing. That has been made possible by the changing times, by the people who crusade, who fight, who march. There is still change to come, and perhaps these difficult times will lead to that change, as difficult times have in the past. The Laurie Beechman Theatre sees a lot of LGBTQ+ acts, but there are other cabaret rooms that could do some work at broadening the scope of art they present. Alt Cabaret seems to be locked in at Pangea, but there is no reason it couldn't find homes in clubs uptown. It would be nice to see some Drag artists and gender-fluid performers in some of the bigger rooms. A Filipino, I have often wondered why there are so few Asian cabaret performers. I would welcome a brighter spotlight on the Lesbians of cabaret, and more diversity among the leaders of the cabaret/club community. The journey into equality for all people, for every artist, is one that is ongoing, and one can only hope that it will change, while one participates in the activities that bring about change.
The first Gay Pride Parade was a protest; now it's a party. People are still protesting. For a while, things got better. These last few years have been difficult for many. People living in the LGBTQ+ community are less safe today than they were four years ago. People whose skin is not white are less safe today than they were four years ago. People of many demographics are less safe today than they were four years ago. Today there are protests happening around the world in an attempt to make change for people who are not safe when they leave their homes every day. The fight for equality is one that has, long, been underway - some years the fight is less prominent, but it is always there. This year the fight for equality for everyone is stronger than it has been for a long time, maybe ever. Those who demand change will continue to fight, every day, through protests, through parades, through petitions, through phone calls and emails, and by voting. Protests will always yield change.
When I met the man who would become my husband, we were afraid to hold hands in public, we certainly never thought we would be able to marry one day. Today we are happily married and always excited when a cabaret artist refers to their wife or husband or welcomes them to the stage. Our fight did that. The ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights has changed much that I never thought would change in my life. One day today's protests and marches will be parades of joy and celebration. That is why we celebrate Gay Pride in every community, in every way possible: because the protests led to change, and change is a reason to celebrate.
Happy Pride everyone. Celebrate yourselves, the community, the artists, and celebrate the protests.
Then go out and change the world.
All photos by Stephen Mosher except The Gorgeous Nothings: photo by Bobby Patrick.